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From Hammer to Nail: What We Lose When We Lose Video Stores

By Alex Ross Perry | Indiewire March 31, 2012 at 12:48PM

Perry's interview with Joe Martin, the longtime proprietor of East Village rental store Reel Life--which closes its doors for good at the end of this month--is an unexpectedly heartfelt tribute to the deterioration of the physical video store.
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ARP: And customers will find the places that have that stuff. My first response walking in here several years ago, or into Kim’s for the first time, was, ‘Where else can I find this, I need to keep coming here.’ And of course I know that I could find that online, but for me that never made sense. So a Japanese horror tape, I don’t need to own that. And people forgot that.

JM: I always thought that what made a good video store was a really good horror section, a really good noir section, and a really good foreign section. So, I knew not everyone had that. If we had those things, then you have a good video store and it’s going to be a viable business. When it became clear that people don’t need to go to the video store to find something strange, and there is so much information out there, there wasn’t a lot of, ‘Have you ever heard of this movie?’ and they say, ‘No, I haven’t.’ People already knew and in fact, they’d be like, I saw it through this channel, or some other way. You don’t have all the excitement of a horror section anymore.

"My philosophy for the video store is that it can only be as good as the neighborhood that supports it."


ARP: That sentence—‘Have you heard of this?’—is to me the essence of what walking into a store is all about. It kind of became obvious at some point in the last ten years that people don’t care, and it’s difficult. There are easier options presented to them, and everyone took it. So product became very accessible. I didn’t know where to buy these weird movies, or foreign movies. It was very confusing to me where stores got their merchandise. But then all of a sudden a huge effort was made to get that merchandise directly into the hands of the customer. Cut out the middleman. With websites like reel.com around this time, you don’t need to go to the store to see what’s new. You don’t need the board of new releases. That information was everywhere. You no longer had to pick up Video Views to see what was coming out, and keep it until the next issue.

JM: We used to have the poster of upcoming releases, people would come in just to look at that poster. And they would write it down, on little pads. Or they’d be upset the new poster hasn’t arrived yet, and then they’re upset if you don’t get everything on the poster. So we had to take a marker and X out straight-to-video nonsense.

ARP: So that ties into the neighborhood function of a store for people to walk in. You said that Williamsburg and Park Slope were two ideal places.

JM: Very cinema savvy people. My philosophy for the video store is that it can only be as good as the neighborhood that supports it. You can have the greatest video store in the world, but if you put it in a neighborhood where they don’t appreciate it, or it doesn’t have what they want to see, it’s not going to do anything. You need to understand the neighborhood first before you do anything. I knew for a fact that a lot of people in Williamsburg were working in film or studying film, and I knew that there was a big customer base to tap into. And I know from living in Park Slope for 20 years that it was very similar. Maybe a little older, but similar.

ARP: The type of people who can appreciate coming in here and speaking to a human. Looking around, calmly and slowly. So does it say something bad about a neighborhood if it can no longer support a store? I’ve seen in the last few days, 50 people coming in here, saying emotional things about the store closing. Perhaps the same thing happened in Williamsburg.

JM: Business has declined. But the thing with the film savvy clientele, is they also tend to be technologically savvy. And they were the first people to start using Netflix and stuff like that. So, a lot of the people who worked in film stopped coming in. It changed. We had to get way more austere and I couldn’t get everything that I wanted to get anymore. The neighborhoods did support the stores. We were willing to get pretty severe in order to keep it going.

ARP: You had to focus on what is going to work just for you. Blockbuster didn’t pay attention to the Facets catalogue.

JM: The video store I grew up with in Bayside Queens, this store was in Flushing and it was called Video Wizard. It was the most awesome video store. When I was 10 years old I would beg them to let me work there. They had a huge horror movie selection. It was so busy they probably had four, five guys working every single shift. All adults, too. This is their career. I really thought they were the coolest. My father would drop me off and I’d spend hours there. He’d go to a bar, and he knew he could leave me in the video store and endlessly peruse the shelves and maybe rent one movie. So it was always my intent to have a leisurely place where you could spend the whole day if you want, and rent one movie. It always felt much better when there was at least one person in here. Suddenly the store was very tranquil.

ARP: Right, the function of a store is to give people a place to do that. I want to do that, and that’s still important. Stores in general fulfill that function, of being a place to go and stand, and be, and think. It’s always been soothing to me, or people like me, and for some reason that’s no longer something that can be sustained. There’s no dollar value on tranquility. But there are still a few more video stores in Park Slope.

JM: I’ve lived here for 20 something years. And prior to owning one, I was a member of a dozen different stores. I was a member of a place called Video Theater. And another place called Captain Video. When these stores were closing, I’d take advantage of them. I’d find amazing foreign films. I think Cinematheque was the distribution company. I’d find rare videos, and they didn’t seem to know what they had. And they all had a distinct personality.

This article is related to: Alex Ross Perry







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